Q&A: Unilever CMO Keith Weed

Unilever global CMO Keith Weed talks about humanising digital marketing, experimentation and the technologies that are exciting him.

Marketing Week (MW): Is the pace of change facing the marketing industry exciting or scary for marketers?

Keith Weed: Things have changed so much in the last 10 years, the last five years, and the last three years. What’s happening is the twin peaks of the growth of globalisation and the growth of technology, they are feeding off each other. The more global you can become the more digital you can become and vice versa. It’s scary if you’re caught in the middle. If you’re niche it’s OK and if you’ve got scale it’s OK. So with a €6bn budget if I can’t be experimenting and testing the future then shame on me. But you can’t do that if you’re medium sized.

MW: Google says brands need to put experimentation [in marketing] at the forefront, not as a side project. What do you think?

KW: What you need to do is remember what we’re [Unilever] doing. At the end of the day we are serving consumers and building brands. If you remember those two things it guides you through what is a challenging time for marketers. Just because you can do everything, doesn’t mean you should. I think being choosey is becoming a bigger part of what a marketer has to do.

The first thing I’d say [about experimentation] is fish where the fish are. There are a lot of interesting things you can do and of course you do need to experiment but you should look where consumers are engaging with brands and consuming media. In the US – if you look broadly at digital – people are spending about 30 per cent of their time in that area. So it’s not surprising a lot of US companies are spending about 30 per cent of their budget there. If you look across the world you see a huge difference. Based on infrastructure, penetration of internet or mobile or various reasons. In India you wouldn’t want to spend a fortune on internet where there is low penetration.

To this day the biggest and most powerful way to engage with people is TV advertising and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, it’s not the only way. We’ll see more and more campaigns that leverage many levers like social and mobile and video and that’s endlessly exciting. There are options [for experimentation] but they are not compulsory.    

MW: There has also been a lot of conversation at Cannes this year about ‘humanising’ digital marketing. Do you think the way a lot of brands still approach integrates and digital is still a bit cold and not quite fitting with consumer behaviour?

KW: It’s a very good point and we talk about humanisation a lot internally. We talk about real people with real lives.  We use the term ‘consumer’ less and less because it puts a label or a badge on people who are actually you, your mum, your sister, and your friend. We need to think about how people use social etc. to connect and engage with other people because in the same way they are engaging with people they are also engaging with brands. The conversation needs to be much more human than in can be an announcement style TV broadcast.  We’ve learned that TV is giving you information but it isn’t the way you chat to your friend and it certainly isn’t the way you should talk to brands. People are real people – they are not heads of hair charging around looking for shampoo solutions, or a pair of armpits looking to be deodorised.

MW: What technology development excites you?

KW: There are two things really. The first is mobile and I know that everyone talks about mobile but the truth of the matter is it is barely leveraged. It will have as big an impact on marketers as the internet had. I was at CES in Las Vegas this year and at Mobile World Congress and while there are lots of brands at CES there are fewer at MWC so it hasn’t really got in people’s minds yet.

When I was a young marketer, I remember being jealous of retailers for having a direct interface with consumers, but now with mobile we [FMCG brands] can have that too. I think mobile is the most important thing because it’s about direct connection.

The other is an enabler for marketers – all the technology that enables marketers to really view and feed digital campaigns. The Dove Sketches campaign has just become the most viewed branded film ever with 145 million views around the world. We have a control room in the office where we monitor it all – it’s like air traffic control with screens and Twitter feeds from around the world. The views grew naturally but watching the data we could really dial up certain things as we learnt from each country. It’s the science of marketing.

MW: Dove and Lynx brand marketing is always held up by other brands as an example of great marketing but what brands in Unilever’s portfolio are more challenging and where you still have to find the big idea?

KW: We have 14 €1bn brands. We want that to be 20, then 30. In an increasingly joined up world the opportunity to have a bigger, more cohesive brand is there but also it’s more challenging. As always, you need to have big ideas but increasingly you need brands with a certain level of purpose and depth. If I take Ono/Persil Dirt is Good campaign as an example, I could be telling you Persil washes whiter – indeed it does, it’s a great product and a great brand but the fact that we go further to engage on the experience between families and the experience of going out and getting dirty under the Dirt is Good banner means we can go on to talk about child development and have a much deeper relationship [with the consumer]. [Unilever runs advice and research programmes to encourage active development and outdoor play.]

[As a brand] if you’re just talking about one product benefit you’re a bit like a person at a party telling the same joke over again. To start with people stand around and listen but by the end of the evening everyone will have gravitated away. Brands haven’t got that still. You’d think they would have but there are still a lot of brands telling the same thing over and over again. Repetition is good but if you go too far it becomes boredom and in the social world people don’t have to listen – they walk away. If you want to engage people you have to be engaging and brands with a bit more depth do better.

MW: What are the biggest challenges in the UK specifically and have they changed over the past year?

KW: Our biggest opportunity is also our biggest challenge and in the UK it’s mobile.

There is a significant penetration of smartphones and 3G in the UK which means you can get really good quality engagement through mobile. The biggest challenge is to unlock the mobile opportunity – we are in the foothills of mobile.

Three years ago I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time taking our senior marketers around Silicon Valley to meet the big digital firms like Google. We had a fleeting meeting with an upcoming company called Twitter and we happened to drop in to see Apple when it was developing iAd. It is to this day by far the best mobile smartphone ad platform that there is. Eighty per cent of success is showing up, they say, and I showed up and sealed the deal on the day. We’re still the largest advertiser on the platform. A lot of people have challenged it as to whether it’s a good part of the overall mix as it’s seen as expensive, but to me its value rather than expense. Consumers are spending over a minute in an iAd with Unilever products.

That’s exactly why you should experiment. We are proud of being first – we had the first black and white TV ad, first colour TV ad in the UK, and the first iAd.